Bearing Witness to the Holocaust

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2013 15:31

While most of us understand the Holocaust only from what we’ve read or seen in movies and documentaries, longtime Groveland resident Lee Dunlap witnessed it firsthand.

During World War II, Dunlap was a member of an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon with the U.S. Army’s 104th Infantry Division. On a spring day in 1945, he and his platoon stepped into a horror known as Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp outside the German city of Nordhausen.

“Our platoon sergeant may have been told something, but none of the rest of us had any idea the camp was there,” explains Dunlap, 92. “All I knew that morning as we headed out on patrol was that we were supposed to go find some Germans and take them prisoner.”

As Dunlap drove his jeep into a wooded area on April 11, 1945, the men in his platoon noticed a horrid stench. When the Americans approached what looked like a camp, seven German guards standing outside immediately surrendered. The soldiers then walked over to a barbed-wire gate and forced it open.

Nothing they had encountered in nearly 200 days of combat prepared them for what they found.

Hard work

Like so many war-weary soldiers, Dunlap had already traveled a long way and experienced a great deal when he and the others found Mittelbau-Dora.

Born in 1921 in Dumont, Texas, he was the third youngest of 11 children. His father was a blacksmith, and one of Dunlap’s earliest memories is turning his dad’s forge to keep the fire hot.

By age 10, Lee’s family had moved to Florence, Arizona. With the country mired in the Great Depression, work was a way of life even for the children. It took precedence over school, and Lee chopped cotton and did field work well into autumn and often past Christmas. Fifth grade was the last year of school he would complete.

Dunlap wanted to join the service right after Pearl Harbor, but so many others felt the same way that nearly a year passed before he was processed into the Army. Sent to Camp Adair in Oregon, he became part of the 415th Infantry Regiment in the 104th Division, a fierce fighting unit known as the Timberwolves and governed by the motto, “Nothing in Hell Can Stop the Timberwolves.”

Dunlap had learned to drive his brother’s car at 12 or 13, so when jeep drivers were needed for an Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon, he and new Army buddy Elmer Westray from Louisville volunteered. The 21 men and seven jeeps would be responsible for scouting ahead of combat troops. “We became the eyes of the regiment,” he says proudly.

Dunlap in his jeep

Dunlap in his jeep

After months of training in Arizona, California and Colorado, Dunlap, Westray and the rest of the 104th Infantry Division left New York in late August 1944. On Sept. 7, three months after the D-day invasion, they became the first division to land at Normandy directly from the United States.

Bronze Star     

The 104th moved from France into Belgium and joined the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in October. When the division was on the move, the I&R platoon was out in front.

“Elmer and I and the other jeeps would be checking road junctions, church steeples … looking for artillery fire,” Dunlap says. “We’d time flashes until we heard the bang to calculate distance. Flash-bang, like lightning and thunder. We’d report how far away a German gun was.”

By Oct. 28, the division had advanced into Holland, the Germans retreating ahead of them. That evening Maj. John Deane, regimental intelligence officer, led Dunlap’s platoon on night patrol to learn how far the Germans had retreated, and if possible, return with a prisoner to interrogate.

As dusk fell, the platoon passed through a village of cheering Dutch and moved into the countryside. The jeeps advanced a distance and then stopped, the men kneeling beside the vehicles to listen for enemy activity. Hearing nothing, they ventured further into the night and repeated the exercise.

Eleven miles into the mission, the platoon stopped once more to listen. Suddenly Deane yelled, “Turn those goddamn jeeps around!”

The platoon had run into 60 Germans who had dug in and were now shooting at Dunlap and the others. In the chaos, one of the jeeps backed into a ditch and became mired. Covered by fire from his fellow soldiers, Dunlap grabbed a rope from his vehicle, tied it to the stranded jeep and pulled.

That rope snapped, so he ran to the jeep in the ditch, found another rope, tied it on and pulled once more. The rope held. With bullets flying, Dunlap freed the jeep and saved the three men inside.

In the firefight, six Germans were killed, and one was indeed captured for interrogation. There were no American casualties. The prisoner, apparently happy his war was over, rode on the hood of Dunlap’s jeep the 11 miles back to Allied lines.

James Turpin (left), Lee Dunlap and Elmer Westray

James Turpin (left), Lee Dunlap and Elmer Westray

Lee Dunlap would receive the Bronze Star for “courage and intense devotion to duty and to his comrades.” The medal citation credits him for “saving the vehicle and its occupants from almost certain destruction.” 

Push toward Berlin

From November to March, Dunlap’s platoon scouted ahead of the 415th Infantry Regiment as it fought toward the heart of Germany.

“I remember crossing the Siegfried line and seeing all those Dragon’s Teeth,” he says, referring to truncated concrete pyramids designed to stop Allied tanks or funnel them into killing zones.

During the Battle of the Bulge, the entire division defended a sector near the town of Duren just across the Belgian border in Germany.

“We were around the ‘corner’ of the bulge,” Dunlap recalls. He remembers hearing constant shelling and adds, “That winter was so cold, and we were out in the weather most of the time.”

The 104th entered the bombed-out city of Cologne in early March. The city’s iconic cathedral, a monument to Gothic architecture, still stood, though barely. Many an Allied bombing raid found its bearings by sighting the twin spires of the church, whose cornerstone was laid in 1248.

“I went into that cathedral several times,” Dunlap remembers, “and when I’d look up, I’d see the sky through all the holes in the roof.”

The men at first stayed in a factory over the Rhine and then moved into an old Gestapo barracks.

“We found a safe there, and when we broke it open, it was full of all these German medals.”

On March 22, 1945, Dunlap and Westray drove their jeeps across a pontoon bridge on the Rhine River a few hundred yards from the famed bridge at Remagen, a strategic linchpin in the Allied advance.

Between late March and early April, Allied forces executed a pincer movement to trap more than 400,000 German soldiers in the heavily industrialized area known as the Ruhr Pocket. Dunlap and the 104th participated in the action that marked the end of major Third Reich resistance.

“We had so many German soldiers trying to surrender to us, we didn’t know what to do with all of them,” Dunlap recalls. “We’d take their guns and send them back behind our lines.”  Dunlap vfw and medals hat

The official German surrender came on May 7 but in reality, the war was over in Europe in April. By the end of that month, the Russians had surrounded Berlin and Hitler had committed suicide.

It was also in April that the Nazis’ most terrible secret came to light.

Hitler’s secret weapon

Before Lee Dunlap and the 104th Infantry joined the Allied push across Europe, Hitler believed he needed a super weapon to win the war. He enlisted Germany’s top scientists, including young Wernher von Braun, to develop both jet- and rocket-propelled warheads. These became the V-1 “Buzz Bomb” and the V-2 rocket.

Word about the secret weapons leaked to the west. On August 18, 1943, a Royal Air Force raid on the V-1 and V-2 factory on the Baltic Coast in northern Germany forced Hitler to look for a safer place to build the weapons.

In central Germany near Nordhausen were two parallel tunnels, former anhydrite gypsum mines used to store oil and war materiel. The tunnels, 35 feet wide, 25 feet high and a mile long, housed the new weapons factory.

The desperate need for soldiers had exhausted Germany’s supply of available men, so the Reich turned to its network of concentration camps for slave labor to build the weapons. By late August, the first prisoners from Buchenwald, a huge concentration camp 45 miles southeast of Nordhausen, arrived and were put to work. Thousands more would soon follow.

Conditions were horrific. Prisoners – mostly Russian, Polish and French – worked 12-hour shifts around the clock. They were given little food, little water, had no sanitation, and when they could sleep through the constant blasting, had only the ground for a bed. Considered expendable, they were literally worked to death. Those who survived the first six months never saw daylight during that time.

After those first six months, the Mittelbau-Dora camp was built outside the tunnels, again with slave labor, and prisoners then had barracks. So many died working at Nordhausen that crematoria were built onsite. Before that, the dead had been shipped back to Buchenwald for disposal, leading prisoners there to comment, “The only thing Dora produces is corpses.”

During the last eight months of the war, Germany launched 4,300 V-2’s, but they were not as accurate as hoped and did little to slow the inevitable defeat of the Third Reich.

The cost was tremendous. Over the last 20 months of the war, 25,000 prisoners in the tunnels were worked to death, starved to death or executed.

Royal Air Force bombing raids in the first week of April 1945 destroyed much of the city of Nordhausen. The next day managers abandoned the V-2 factory and the concentration camp. They evacuated the healthiest prisoners to other camps and left just a few guards outside the barbed-wire gates.

Those guards, that odor, and smoke from an attempt to destroy the nightmare inside met Lee Dunlap and his platoon on April 11.

Inside the gates

When Dunlap and the others entered the camp they found thousands of bodies. Most but not all were dead. It was a scene of unimaginable horror that would haunt many of the liberators for decades.

“The dead ones were mostly naked and stacked in rows along the fences,” Lee says, “stacked maybe three feet high and a good 300 feet long. Just skeletons with some skin on ’em.”

The surviving prisoners were in blue and gray striped uniforms.

“Some of the ones too weak to walk were carried by the stronger ones,” he recalls.

“We saw some wooden bunk kind of covered boxes, maybe ten foot by four foot, piled with guys too weak to come out to see us. Some in there were alive, some dead, mixed in together.”

Those who could walk came over to the soldiers.

“Some of the stronger ones tried to grab the guns we took from the guards. They wanted to shoot those German guards right there. We had to explain they were now prisoners of war.”

“All of the camp prisoners, even the weakest, wanted to touch us and grab us,” Dunlap says. “I remember some crawling because they couldn’t walk. Some touched our faces and kissed us on the cheek. They were so happy to see us. Skin and bones. The guys walking around were just skin and bones.”

In their haste to destroy evidence before they fled, the Germans had set at least one of the camp buildings on fire. “There was a pit full of cross ties and boards smoking and smoldering,” Dunlap says, “just a big ol’ hole with dead bodies stacked around it.”

“In my jeep, I carried a gallon can of marmalade, a gallon can of peanut butter, and some loaves of this brown bread. I got that stuff out and gave it to the prisoners. But some couldn’t eat … they were just too weak.”

“I saw the ovens, too,” Dunlap adds. “Part of the doors were closed and part open. There were ashes and debris and stuff in there. We just saw too much.”

His platoon stayed at the camp for less than two hours. They radioed in what they had found and moved on. The same day, the 6th Armored Division found Buchenwald and its 21,000 surviving inmates.

The day after Dunlap and the others opened the camp gates, a medical battalion arrived at Mittelbau-Dora for a rescue operation. They found 3,000 corpses and nearly 800 survivors, some of whom died within hours. Others were so malnourished that they would never recover.

A few days later, the Allies forced civilians from nearby Nordhausen to carry the corpses out for burial in mass graves. 

Moving on

Dunlap sailed for home on June 27, 1945, aboard the MS John Ericsson. While his unit trained at Camp San Luis Obispo for the invasion of Japan, atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On Aug. 30, the men learned they would not be going to the Pacific. Their war was over.

Although he would periodically peruse the Timberwolves newsletter, Dunlap moved on quickly after the war and rarely looked back. In 1946, he married and moved to Greeley Hill to help his father log with a team of horses. For several years he worked in sawmills in that area and built roads into Cherry Valley.

A collector of beer cans, barbed wire and date nails, Dunlap ran an antique shop in Coulterville from 1969 to 1984. He married and divorced three times, has four children, nine grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. In 2011, he proudly served as grand marshal of the Groveland 49er Festival Parade.

Lee Dunlap, Bronze Star

Bronze Star atop photo of Lee Dunlap as young soldier

Looking back

Lee Dunlap didn’t talk about his experience at Mittelbau-Dora for decades – not even with Elmer Westray, though the men have remained fast friends for 70 years. Dunlap has even been to Louisville twice to visit his old war buddy, now 91.

When they talk on the phone today, Dunlap and Westray often reminisce, but the concentration camp is a topic they avoid.

“I blocked out a lot of it,” Lee says. “We were all just trying to survive … That was the only thing on our mind each day, wondering if we were going to stay alive.”

Westray tries to explain.

“You just want to put it out of your mind. It was a terrible thing,” he says by phone from his Kentucky home. “We couldn’t believe what had happened. You just don’t want to think you’ve seen something like that.”

The passage of time has helped. One day in 1980, a carpenter working for Dunlap’s son Ron started asking Lee about his war experiences. For the first time, Lee talked about what his platoon found on that April day 35 years earlier. Since then he has been less hesitant to share his memories of Mittelbau-Dora.

In recent years, Dunlap has survived back surgery, a knee and hip replacement, and two small strokes. But he gets up each day looking forward to the next.

On his VFW uniform he proudly points to ribbons for the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Bronze Star, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with five battle stars.

“We just wanted to stay alive,” he repeats. “We just wanted to survive.”

Sources for this story include interviews with Mr. Dunlap and Mr. Westray; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ushmm.org; numerous websites, including jewishvirtuallibrary.org; Michael Hirsh’s book “The Liberators;” and the History Channel documentary “Nordhausen, WWII.”

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

 

 

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson December 15, 2013 15:31
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2 Comments

  1. Martha Glassy November 21, 19:46

    Thank you for your service. My father, Earl Cogburn, was a Timberwolf. I believe he was also at this concentration camp, but am not sure. He also never talked about his time in Germany or the horrors he saw, but it affected him throughout his life.

  2. Walt Walko Jr. November 27, 18:10

    Thank You for your service. My father was in your Plt, He told me the bodies were piled up like cord wood – He did not believe they people at first.

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